Slings & Arrows revolves around a trio of artists at the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival. Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) is a former actor who suffered a mental breakdown during a performance of Hamlet. Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) was his director and mentor, and Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) was his girlfriend and co-star.
Seven years after that fateful performance, Tennant is running a theatre company (Theatre Sans Argent) that is being evicted. Meanwhile, Welles is the artistic director and Fanshaw is the aging grand dame of the New Burbage Festival. After Welles dies in a freak accident — hit by a ham delivery truck — Tennant is hired as the festival’s new artistic director. Welles’s spirit, however, refuses to leave, and haunts his protégé as he attempts to fill his mentor’s shoes.
A feud over whether the festival should pursue artistic merit or commercial success ensues between Tennant, the festival’s general manager, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), and corporate sponsor Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin). Tennant also conflicts with pretentious director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) over the direction of Hamlet, while mentoring Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), a young heartthrob action star, in the role that drove Tennant to madness. Other characters include Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), the brains behind the operation; promising apprentice actress Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams); and theatre critic Basil Thume (Seán Cullen).
Each season follows the New Burbage Festival as it attempts to stage a different Shakespearean tragedy. The first six-episode season centres on the staging of Hamlet. The second season introduces egotistical actor Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) as the lead in Macbeth and Colm Feore as an avant-garde marketing director. The third and final season adds Sarah Polley as Sophie, a young actress playing Cordelia opposite Charles Kingman (William Hutt), a dying actor whose final wish is to portray King Lear.
As Bob Martin said in 2013, “basically the first season is youth, the second one is middle age, and the third one is old age, in a very general sense.”
In the late 1990s, CTV production executive Tecca Crosby pitched a half-hour series to Niv Fichman, executive producer of Rhombus Media. Fichman commissioned Susan Coyne — playwright, actor, and co-founder of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company — to write a pilot script, which she titled “Over The Top.” Fichman then brought in Kids In The Hall veteran Mark McKinney as a writing partner. Though he and Coyne had plenty of ideas, they were unable to flesh out enough for a series.
Around the same time, Fichman saw The Drowsy Chaperone and decided to involve its co-creator Bob Martin, an alumnus of Toronto’s Second City, in the project. Each member of the writing team brought their own theatrical experience to the collaboration. As Coyne told Gayle MacDonald of the Globe and Mail, the process was not always smooth, but“We wrote the things that made us laugh, the things we find frustrating and humiliating about life in the theatre.”
There was much speculation that the series was a thinly-veiled lampoon of Ontario’s acclaimed Stratford Festival. Much of the cast have appeared in many Stratford productions, there are many similarities between characters and real people at the Festival, and at one point in development the show was called St. Ratford. The creators insist that the New Burbage Festival is not specific to Stratford but rather is representative of any summer theatre festival, be it the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Old Globe in San Diego or the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. As Bob Martin said in 2013, “we all realized that to make [the show] an attack on Stratford, which was really unwarranted, would lessen it.”
The CBC initially developed and greenlit the series, but dropped it before production began. Niv Fichman told the Globe and Mail, “To this day, we still don’t know exactly what happened. It was developed by the CBC and seemingly well-loved. What’s a more perfect series for the CBC than a comedy based on the Shakespeare festival?... All the CBC executives said they don’t know [why the series was turned down]. They shrug and say, ‘what an unbelievable thing.’” However, Tecca Crosby pitched the show to TMN, where Michelle Marion, director of Canadian independent production, ordered six episodes.
The festival’s productions are set in the fictional Swan Theatre, where many of the scenes take place. In the first season, the majority of the interior theatre scenes were shot in Hamilton’s Tivoli Theatre, while the lobby was shot at Toronto’s Pantages Theatre (now the Ed Mirvish Theatre). After the Tivoli’s roof collapsed in June 2004, the second and third seasons were shot in the Sanderson Centre in Brantford, Ontario. Many other locations in southern Ontario, including the Blue Goose Pub in Toronto’s Mimico neighbourhood, were used for scenes not set in the theatre.
Premiere and International Audience
The series premiered on 3 November 2003 and ran for three seasons. The entire series was directed by Peter Wellington. In August 2005, Laura Michalchyshyn brought Slings & Arrows to Sundance TV, an arts station founded by Robert Redford, broadcasting the show to more than 23 million homes in the United States.
Reception in Canada
There were concerns initially that Slings & Arrows would only appeal to a small niche market. However, in an interview with Canadian Screenwriter, Bob Martin explained that the writers approached the series like a workplace sitcom similar to The West Wing: “The way I look at it, the theatre is going to be like any workplace, and full of many of the same points of tension: the hierarchy of authority, people’s need to shine, the sexual stuff.”
Reception to the show in Canada was mixed at first. Many critics loved it, while others had reservations. Some felt that the first season started slowly but picked up around the third episode. John Doyle of the Globe and Mailwrote, “Unfortunately it’s not all its cracked up to be.” Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star, though originally not excited by the concept, wrote that “by the end of the first episode, the realization that you’re watching something wonderful crystallizes like brown sugar under a blowtorch.” Doyle eventually changed his mind for the second season, calling the show “a delicious comedy.”
“Watching those final six episodes again has also become an even more deeply moving experience since the death of William Hutt last summer. His performance as Charles Kingman, who wants to play Lear even though he's dying of cancer, was always superb, but now it becomes both an invaluable record and a heartbreaking memory. Balance it with the profound humanity of Paul Gross, the diamond brilliance of Martha Burns, the bittersweet melancholy of Susan Coyne and the pathos-filled comedy of Mark McKinney and you have a galaxy of performances not to be forgotten.”
When the show aired in the US, it was universally praised. Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times wrote: “Slings & Arrows is consistently engaging, and it's often painful and gorgeous… [It] is charming and complex and lovely.” The Chicago Tribune called it "one of TV's most unheralded gems,” while the Los Angeles Times called it “a splendid show, always smart but never superior,” adding viewers need not understand, or even like, Shakespeare to enjoy it. The A.V. Club called it “one of TV’s greatest shows,” the product of “a kind of alchemy rarely seen on television.”
The show also gained many celebrity fans. David Simon, creator of The Wire, praised the show in multiple articles, stating for example in Salon: “Every now and then you find a gem that you just really love. There was this show called Slings and Arrows. Did you see that? Oh my God. That thing was wonderful.”
After learning of the show through Simon, Martin Chilton, culture editor of the Telegraph, lamented that the series had not aired in Britain, writing: “What makes it such a triumph (without going into spoiler plotlines) is that it deals with serious personal themes with such humour. It neatly satirizes and yet tenderly explores the fear and insecurity of an actor's life.”
A remake of Slings & Arrows titled Som e Furia (“sound and fury”) was broadcast by Brazil’s Rede Globo de Televisão in 2009. It was produced and co-directed by Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles, who had made the Toronto-shot Blindness (2008) with producer Niv Fichman. “It was really fun to find out how universal the story was,” Susan Coyne said in 2013. “Everybody completely understood it. They used virtually — they just translated the scripts — and did them in Portuguese.” Broadcast as a twelve-episode miniseries, Som e Furia attracted 18 million viewers. It was nominated for an International Emmy and won several awards.
Slings & Arrows was at the vanguard of Canadian-produced television that became popular internationally. In 2009, Maclean’s named Slings & Arrows one of the Top 10 Canadian TV shows of the decade. It remains one of the most critically acclaimed television programs in Canadian history.
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Paul Gross) (2004)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series (Rachel McAdams) (2004)
- Best Dramatic Series (2006)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Mark McKinney) (2006)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Martha Burns) (2006)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series (Susan Coyne) (2006)
- Best Direction in a Dramatic Series (Peter Wellington) (2006)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Bob Martin, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney) (2006)
- Best Dramatic Series (2007)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Paul Gross) (2007)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Martha Burns) (2007)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series (Stephen Ouimette) (2007)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Bob Martin, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney) (2007)
- Television – Pretty Funny Writing – Series (Bob Martin, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney) (2005)
- Best Performance by a Male – Television (Mark McKinney) (2006)
Directors Guild of Canada Awards
- Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Television (Susan Fairbairn, Ronayne Higginson, Brandon Walker) (2004)
- Outstanding Television Series – Drama (2006)
- Outstanding Picture Editing – Television Series (Christopher Donaldson) (2006)
- Television Series – Drama (2007)
- Picture Editing – Television Series (Christopher Donaldson) (2007)
Writers Guild of Canada Awards
- Dramatic Series – One Hour (2004)
- Dramatic Series – One Hour (2006)
- Dramatic Series – One Hour (2007)